TiVo has also been making inroads as an alternative to regular TV programming. What started as occasional movie trailers and downloadable TV shows has blossomed into a more formalized slate of on-demand programming called TiVoCast, which includes videos from such content providers as the New York Times, the NBA, Heavy.com, and Rocketboom. (Full disclosure: CNET Networks is among TiVo's content partners.) Despite a much-ballyhooed 2004 deal with Netflix, however, there are some significant political and technical roadblocks to transforming TiVo into an on-demand movie box. Nevertheless, TiVoCast programming--already available on Series2 boxes--should be viewable on Series3 models before the end of 2006. No word on whether or not any of the content will be available in high-definition.
Notably, the TiVo To Go feature--which allowed you to transfer recorded programs to your networked PC, and then to a portable device--is not present on the Series3 box. The same goes for Multi-Room Viewing, which lets you transfer programming from one networked TiVo to another within a household. (Both features remain alive and well on earlier Series2 TiVos). As always, the culprit here is not technology, but copyright concerns. TiVo would like to add the features to Series3 boxes at some point, but given Hollywood's fear of digital media, we're not holding our breath.
What do all of these features cost? Not unlike a cell phone, the TiVo hardware is all but useless without the accompanying service. That means--in addition to the nearly $800 cost of the hardware itself--you'll need to pay a monthly fee to TiVo of $13. Customers with multiple TiVo boxes may be eligible for a Multi-Service Discount. Furthermore, it's been rumored that anyone who locked into the lifetime membership fee on an older TiVo--the option is no longer available--can transfer that option to a new Series 3 box, at least for the next few months. Getting the CableCard tuners properly installed and configured on our TiVo Series3 took two visits and three phone calls to our local Time Warner Cable franchise. The problem is that most of the technicians just aren't that familiar with the CableCard technology--it was a knowledgeable employee on the phone who was finally able to remotely activate our cards (thanks again, Shah). Once they were up and running, though, things seemed to work just fine.
The Series3 wasn't our first experience with TiVo, so returning to the interface was as familiar as riding a bike. After the initial setup, recording our favorite TV shows--either in single episodes or weekly batches--quickly became second nature, thanks to the completely intuitive interface. You can choose between two versions of the onscreen programming guide: the TiVo Live Guide (channels on the left, detailed breakdown of shows on the right) or the more-familiar Grid Guide. Gone are the Series2 delays when switching channels--the Series3 box doesn't have to pass the channel-changing commands on to an external cable box, so channel-surfing is nearly as fast as when using a cable company-issued DVR, such as the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD.
The dual-tuner functionality also worked smoothly. You can easily toggle from one tuner to the other by hitting the Live TV button on the remote, but the TiVo lacks a picture-in-picture (PIP) function. Moreover, despite the fact that the program guide organizes information from all of the tuners (cable, antenna, digital, analog, standard, high-def) into a nice, single interface, hard-core couch potatoes may be chagrined to realize that the Series3 can toggle between only any two live sources. So while you can record two programs simultaneously, you can't switch to or record a third live program, even if it's coming in off the antenna. You can, however, view a previously recorded program while recording two others. (By contrast, the Dish ViP622 can record three sources--two satellite, one over-the-air--while playing back a fourth.)
Video quality was generally excellent--which is to say, we noticed no differences in the TiVo's video quality vs. that of respective cable and antenna reception on other devices (the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR and Samsung SIR-T451 over-the-air tuner). Of course, if your cable provider overcompresses its signals in order to conserve bandwidth--and many do--you'll get the same artifacts and blockiness on the Series3 TiVo that you'd get with any other tuner. That's no fault of the TiVo, of course; we're just managing expectations. Audio quality was likewise solid, and the TiVo ably passed Dolby Digital surround soundtracks to our A/V receiver via its HDMI output.
There was one video issue which was a major cause for concern: copy protection. Many of the programs we recorded included a warning that the content provider had encoded them for "restricted viewing," meaning we were precluded from the possibility of saving them to a VCR or DVD recorder. In other words, the only way to watch these shows seemed to be via the HDCP-encoded HDMI output. The composite and S-Video outs were completely disabled, and component video seemed to work intermittently (we even lost HDMI output briefly, on several occasions). TiVo said the the problem is completely unintentional--all video should output over all outputs--and that some overzealous copy-protection from our local cable company may be the culprit. According to TiVo, the flagging of programming for restricted viewing should only apply to video-on-demand and pay-per-view content--none of which should be accessible on the Series3 anyway. Upon further investigation, we isolated the problem to our A/V receiver--it seems that certain JVC receivers have an HDMI incompatibility that over-aggressively interprets the content flags. Switching to a different A/V receiver (or going component rather than HDMI) alleviated the problem (full details are available here). That said, the incident does raise the spectre that content providers could flag future (and current) broadcasts with various restrictions.
The Season Pass and Wish List features work like a charm, and TiVo offers plenty of little tweaks to further finetune your TV viewing pleasure. For instance, Overlap Protection lets you choose to cancel or clip competing programs based on priorities you set. Thus, if Lost runs until 10:05 as it often does, you can have your 10 p.m. recording start late--that is, if you don't just assign it to the second tuner and eliminate the overlap problem that way. The TiVo Suggestions function works well, assuming you want to invest some time into voting for your viewing choices. Granted, some of the suggestions are far from revelations (Simpsons fans get Futurama recommendations, Stargate SG-1 viewers are directed toward Battlestar Galactica), and your TiVo may occasionally misread your choices, but it's a great way to discover new shows you might like. And the most famous TiVo hack still works like a charm: punching in Select > Play > Select > 3 > 0 > Select turns on the 30-second skip feature, so you can blast through recorded commercial breaks with a few easy clicks of the remote's Advance button.
It's also worth noting that TiVo's accuracy in recording programs as you specify is about as close to bulletproof as we've seen on a DVR. Yes, overtime sporting events and unscheduled breaking news can always throw a wrench in things, but the TiVo is much better than the competition in the accuracy of its listings, and its ability to distinguish between new episodes and reruns, even on more-obscure off-network shows. It also does a great job with informing you of potential conflicts and problems. For instance, we received messages letting us know that title changes ("The CBS Evening News is now The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric") and lineup changes ("The UPN and WB networks have merged into the CW, so many of your favorite shows may now be on a different channel") could affect our viewing choices, so we could adjust our Season Passes accordingly, if need be. You won't get those types of warnings from competing DVRs, and you could quickly start missing shows as a result.
As great as the TiVo experience is, however, there were a couple of features--again, found on the Dish ViP622--that we'd like to see. While you can set favorite channels, there's no ability for customized favorites list for the recordings--a great feature that allows family members to compartmentalize their TV viewing. Also, the ViP622 has a great bulk-erase feature that TiVo lacks--just go down the list of everything recorded on one screen, and check off all the shows that you'd like to delete.
Turning to the home media and networking functionality, performance varied by the particular function, with some faring better than others. For pulling music and photos from a networked PC to your living room, the TiVo is a worthwhile substitute for many of the network digital media players we've auditioned. The TiVo Desktop software is as easy to install and set up as Microsoft's Windows Media Connect application, and it serves the same function: setting up key directories on your PC to be accessed from the TiVo. The Mac version currently works only on older, pre-Intel machines.
Once configured, any compatible music and photo files on your PC should be available on your TiVo. ID3 information for songs is displayed, so you'll see song title, album title, artist, year, and genre (if available), as well as duration and filename. You can easily navigate nested folders with the remote, play individual songs, or play multiple songs sequentially or randomly. The shuffle and repeat modes can include subfolders. Even better, you can use your existing playlists, as long as you've saved them in the standard M3U, B4S, PLS, or ASX file formats. Just pick a folder of music, select a starting song or playlist as well as the playback mode, and turn off your TV. With TiVo's audio output hooked up to your home stereo, you can enjoy hours of uninterrupted digital music.
Digital-photo navigation works the same way. Photos can be viewed in the same shuffle and repeat modes as the music files, with eight user-configurable slide-show intervals ranging from two seconds to five minutes. Unlike the many DVD players that are billed as photo viewers, TiVo perfectly displayed almost every image we threw at it; JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and BMP files from digital cameras and the Web all came up with no trouble, though some of our PNG files didn't show up. You can rotate images 90 degrees with a click of the remote, and large image files are automatically sized to your screen. (TiVo says that an HD version of the photo viewer--presumably, with the ability to show photos in greater detail--will be available "in the November timeframe of this year.")
The online features generally worked well and continue to distinguish TiVo from competing DVRs. Scheduling online was a breeze; just log in to TiVo's Web site, search the program listings, and choose the show you want to record. You can set priority--that is, you can tell your TiVo to record only if nothing else conflicts--and recording quality, as well as get a confirmation e-mail. The remote scheduling worked flawlessly, even when we submitted requests only 30 minutes before a show's start time, although TiVo recommends doing it at least an hour in advance. The Yahoo online services performed as advertised once we used the onscreen keyboard to key in Yahoo usernames for access to online photo albums, as well as zip codes for weather and traffic info. The Podcaster and Live365 online radio features also worked fine.